The Train to Falls Creek
It must have been the summer of 1955 when we took the train to Falls Creek. I would have been seven and about to go into the second grade. I’ve always thought I was younger when we went, but I remember Dad saying more than once over the years, “We were on one of the last trains up there.” According to several websites, passenger service between Pittsburgh and Buffalo on the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh ended in October 1955. So, ’55 it must be.
We went to Falls Creek to visit my dad’s Aunt Al – Alice – his cousin Helen and some other relatives whose names I don’t recall. I don’t recall much about Aunt Al, either, and might not remember her at all if it wasn’t for a 1943 letter – an essay on the fanny, really – my grandfather wrote to my dad, who was in the Army at the time. He began by reviewing various synonyms for fanny. To illustrate one, he wrote, “Or as your Aunt Al said once when she took a cooking class, ‘I can cook the ass off all those experts.’” My grandfather died a few months after he wrote this, and Dad gave Nana it and the other letters he’d received from his dad. Occasionally, at family gatherings Nana would get the letters out and have someone read them aloud. My parents, and their parents, were staid Protestants. But Aunt Al had married into a family of Irish Catholics and could say such memorable things. My grandfather ended the little essay by reminding Dad that toilet seats come in just two sizes: the small training seat for toddlers and the standard adult seat. And he wondered what would happen if the same were true of brassieres.
But back to the summer morning in 1955; the Harris family – Mom, Dad, Barbara, Ed, and I – gathered in the living room of the house on South Park Road and waited for a cab to arrive. The cab took us a mile or two to the Brookside stop on the Pittsburgh Railways Shannon-Drake streetcar line. A few minutes later, the streetcar appeared, and we were on our way to the Baltimore & Ohio’s Pittsburgh station.
My memories of the trip are few. The B&O station, which was torn down a year or two later to make room for the Parkway East, was at the downtown end of the Smithfield Street Bridge, just across the Monongahela River from the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie station, from whence, a few years later, we would depart on a family vacation in Florida. I’m not certain, but I believe the streetcar stopped in front of the station. All I remember about the station is the Union News kiosk. Why it stands out is a mystery.
I don’t remember boarding the train. I don’t remember the train pulling out of the station. In fact, I don’t remember anything at all until we got to Butler – forty-four miles and an hour-and-a-half later, according to a 1931 schedule I found on line. As the train approached the Butler station, it passed the Pullman Standard plant. Outside the plant were railroad wheels-and-axel assemblies, millions of them, or so it seemed. But even a sea of steel wheels will hold a seven-year-old boy’s attention for only so long, and I was soon asking Dad why the train was just sitting there. “They’re changing engines,” he said.
The excitement for the remaining ninety miles of our journey was supplied by the western Pennsylvania topography. Several times we were thrust into darkness when the train entered the tunnels that made it possible for it to go through hills, rather than around them. When the train did go around a hill, it was often possible to see the engine up ahead as it rounded a bend. The steam locomotive, the smoke from its stack stretching out behind it, was endlessly fascinating.
Our arrival in Falls Creek – or perhaps it was DuBois, the two are only two miles apart, according to the 1931 timetable – had to have taken place with all the attendant hugs, kisses, and expressions of awe over how big Barb, Ed and I had gotten since the last time, but I don’t remember it. And I don’t remember a darn thing about our visit, or whether we stayed just a day or two, or if we spent a week with the Casey clan in Falls Creek, or what we did while we were there.
But I do remember standing on the crowded station platform on a sunny afternoon waiting for the southbound train. Everyone anxiously looking down the track, hoping to be the first to say, “Here she comes now.” When the train was spotted, I remember turning to look and seeing the locomotive’s headlight brightly shining and smoke belching from the smokestack. A moment later, accompanied by the hissing and screeching of the brakes doing their work, the iron horse eased by the platform, its great drive wheels slowly turning. A thrilling and unforgettable sight for a boy of seven.
Two hours later, in the fading evening light, the train sat motionless in Butler. “Why?” I asked. “They’re changing engines,” Dad said. I accepted his explanation but never asked why they always changed engines in Butler. The sun was down when the train reached Pittsburgh and backed slowly toward the B&O station along the banks of the Monongahela, which sparkled with reflected light. A decade later, when the young man’s fancy had turned to love, I would remember the sparkling river, and picture a beautiful young lady and me, looking very Cary Grantish, of course, in a Pullman compartment dreaming romantic dreams as our train traveled along the banks of a river sparkling with the lights of a big city. Then I’d remember, the mighty Mon that night sparkled with nothing more romantic than the reflected light of Jones & Laughlin’s South Side Works.
I don’t remember getting off the train or our trip back to South Park Road. But I do remember that for several years after our trip to Falls Creek, I would sit often sit and dream of being on that train, of seeing the engine up ahead, of watching the scenery flash by, of the sudden darkness of going into a tunnel and of standing on the station platform as the train pulled into Falls Creek. There is so much I’ve forgotten about that trip, but I’ll never forget the thrill of my first train ride.